Recently I started working for a salesman. Unfortunately for this salesman, his colleagues in the marketing department had supplied him with masses of information on PowerPoint slides, which, being the newbie, he had to incorporate into his sales pitch.

As he still has to carve a path for himself in this company, and before bad communication habits could take over the presentation, we found ourselves in conversation about it. Like in most conversations between humans, we told stories about our experiences and those of people we knew. Story, after all, is how humans communicate. We realised that, among the many failings of the presentation at hand, the single missing element was the story.

Here is an illustrative quote:

“The difference between real life and a story is that life has significance, while a story must have meaning. The former is not always apparent, while the latter always has to be, before the end.”
-Vera Nazarian, novelist

So real life and a story are both, in fact, stories. How to find your story and tell it, once you realise this, is a matter of a few steps and realisations.

Firstly, cast your characters. If it is a balance sheet presentation, this stage will show you that the balance sheet itself is not the main character. Think of financial or other data as a reflection on paper of what happened in the real world, and it is what happened in the real world which should be your focus for the story.

Secondly, like any good story, something happens to the characters which presents us with either a problem to solve or the need for a decision. This is known as conflict. Again, the focus is on the character, not its reflection in the data or other measure.

Finally, as this is a story, there should be meaning. The great elephant in the room is the question ‘so what?’. This should be answered in terms relevant to the audience, and in terms of clear and easy action points for the individual.

I’ll leave you now with two kinds of story, both of which should find a way into your presentations: a story in the traditional sense and a business-context story. Notice the similarities…

Introduction, background, and setting, what we know now and what we should know

  • Traditional: Once upon a time there was a little girl called Little Red Riding Hood. She lived near a big forest and liked to take her grandmother a basket of goodies each week.
  • Business context: Last year we sold 14 billion packets of our Super Winkle Nut Flakes. Imagine – that is two packets for every man, woman and child on this planet.

Conflict, our problem, why it is our problem

  • Traditional: One day, while on her way to her grandmother’s cottage, she came across the Big Bad Wolf who delayed her so that he could eat the grandmother and the little girl.
  • Business context: So why do I look worried? Because I overheard someone at the supermarket say that they had had enough of our Super Winkle Nut Flakes, and they were going to switch to an alternative as soon as their current packet runs out.

Resolution

  • Traditional: As it happened, the woodsman came by the cottage and, on seeing the wolf, cut open its belly and freed Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother.
  • Business context: I wanted to come to you with answers, and answers I have. If people are choosing an alternative, we have to make sure that we are that alternative. Welcome to Duper Super Flakes.

End state

  • Traditional: And so Little Red riding Hood learned not to listen to Big Bad Wolves, and to stay on the forest path; and they all lived happily ever after.
  • Business context: And so, ladies and gentlemen. We are the alternative.

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Written by Robert Potter, communication skills and business language trainer, Robert Potter Training

I observe, challenge, and help, being keen to share my insights gleaned from many years’ experience in the training, business soft skills, language, and communications area. I operate across cultures with people from various professional backgrounds to work through their communication issues.

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